This post is a continuation of the interview between artist Hank Willis Thomas and Crystal Bridges Associate Curator of Contemporary Art Allison Glenn. Read Part I here.
AG: In an interview with Kellie Jones, published in the All Things Being Equal… catalog, you refer to your parents as pathfinders. How has family impacted and helped to shape your practice?
HWT: I don’t know if there are any artists that haven’t been influenced by their upbringing, and I don’t think I’m any different. My parents are, at their core, seekers of knowledge. They are also part of the first generation of African Americans to have a crack at freedom, meaning they were educated in the post-Brown vs. Board world, and were able to go to college in integrated schools and have access to opportunities that were pretty much out of the realm of possibilities for their parents. So, I saw how their curiosity about the world led them to do things that were pretty amazing.
AG: What does freedom mean to you?
HWT: I always go back to this quote from a James Baldwin interview where he said that “love has never been a popular movement and no one has ever really wanted to be free.” In a way, freedom is not only timeless and endless, it’s limitless. Freedom is a responsibility to see and live beyond your own limitations of what you think you know life is about.
AG: Who is your role model?
HWT: Probably my grandmother, because her faith is unquestionable, unshakable, and unstoppable. And it leads her to love and appreciate everyone in every moment and to be content and open at the same time.
AG: How does it feel to see a survey of your life’s work altogether in one exhibition, and what do you want guests to come away with after viewing All Things Being Equal…?
HWT: It doesn’t seem real to me. I feel like I’m still learning that I’m “Hank Willis Thomas.” I’m inspired by a JAY-Z song that says, “we ain’t supposed to be here.” I think I still embrace that mentality of “who, me?” that’s been engrained into our psyche for generations. Although I recognize the privilege I have relative to previous generations, I don’t see myself as special in the context of the world. So to think about my “life’s work” and it being something that other people are caring about and investing in and nurturing and celebrating, I mean, it really forces me to reconsider how I value myself and my work, because it’s really a process of self-exploration that I get to share through the world but I never made it thinking that anybody else would care, so it’s pretty humbling and also pretty empowering.
AG: Maybe that’s what drives Beyoncé’s smile.
AG: What advice would you give aspiring artists, curators, programmers, and community organizers who see the work that you’re doing as valuable and want to use that as a way to move forward with their goals and dreams?
HWT: Don’t believe the hype.
AG: What are you hopeful for?
HWT: I’m hopeful for my next breath and that I’ll appreciate it. I’m hopeful that we as a society will not only learn from our past, but also take actions to improve upon them rather than repeating them in destructive ways, and also to recognize that progress is inevitable.
Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal… opens to the public on Saturday, February 8. Member preview is on Friday, February 7. Tickets and more information can be found here.
Don’t miss Hank Willis Thomas at Crystal Bridges! The artist, along with his mother, artist and photographer Deborah Willis, will be in conversation in the Great Hall on Friday, February 7 at 7 pm. The event is free – get your tickets here.
[Cover photo: Artist Hank Willis Thomas at the Portland Art Museum. Courtesy of the Portland Art Museum, Oregon.]